Wine Ink: Cartography and wine
In wine, as in real estate, location, location, location is the key to just about everything. So it is that one of the most important components in the world of wine is the production of clear and complete maps.
Maps, both literally and figuratively, set the boundaries. If you have done any wine touring you know the value of having a good map. A look at a Napa Valley winery map will show you that the Silverado Trail runs up the east side of the valley and Highway 29 up the west, and that between Yountville to Calistoga there are a dozen crossroads that can get you from one side to the other. There you have it. A quick overview of the entire 30-mile-by-5-mile Napa Valley at a glance. Knowledge is power.
Then there are the maps that growers use to help them determine the best places to plant their vines. These detailed maps can indicate the exposures and the steepness of hillsides. Some are color coded to show the sweet spots for particular soil types that will be best for different varieties of grapes and even different clones of those varieties. These maps are vital in creating a vineyard plan that takes full advantage of the topography of a given site.
But perhaps the most significant role that maps play in the wine world has to do with marketing. We all know that certain regions, certain vineyards, produce wines that are considered the best. But it is the actual delineation and classification of those regions and vineyards, on maps, that make them so valuable.
In 1730, the world’s first vineyard classification system was introduced in Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary. Maps were created to show areas that were considered to have the best soils and exposure to the sun for the production of the sweet Botrytised wines of the region. These were classified into three categories and, naturally, the top classification was more valuable.
Today, the majority of wine regions are broken into appellations to indicate unique aspects of the grapes or the terroir, as the French call it, of a certain region. These are all defined by specific boundaries on maps and, if your vineyards fall in the most esteemed areas, your wines are considered to be most valuable. Again, location, as defined by the map, is an advantage to be treasured in selling wine.
In writing this column not a week goes by where I am not examining some form of cartography. My daily go-to for wine maps is the excellent “The World Atlas of Wine” by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. I have the 6th edition published in 2007, and it has become a bit outdated. Though the most recent edition, published by Mitchell Beazley in 2013, is more au courante it too could use a refresher in a rapidly changing and ever-growing wine world. It’s tough to keep up.
Of course, anything worth doing these days is worth doing digitally, and the modern age of cartography is capable of producing images and information that seemingly exceed the limits of the imagination. One of my favorite sites is Everyvine.com. This online cornucopia of vineyard information currently tracks anything and everything about approximately 230,000 acres of vineyards.
The Everyvine pull down menu lets you select a vineyard, see a photo, get a soils analysis and find out who makes what wines from a given block or parcel. If you want to learn about the famed Beckstoffer Georges III vineyard in the Napa Valley, for example, a couple of mouse clicks will give you a photo with block boundaries, a history of the vineyard, the soil composition, even the number of growing degree days.
You can also simply search by grape. Say you are interested in Aligoté, the “other” white grape from Burgundy that is rarely planted here in the U.S. Select the grape from the menu and you will quickly find that the Mt. Harlan vineyard, sitting at an elevation of 2,365.5 feet on the Central California Coast, has 1.84 acres dedicated to Aligoté, and it has been used in various vintages produced by Calera.
You can even find grapes for sale. Click on a sale icon in the Russian River Valley and it will lead you to a sale of 3 tons of grapes from the Olivet Lane vineyard for a mere $8,000 a ton.
It’s all between the lines.